Game Designer at Fine Monkeys, LLC. Likes all things pixel art.
Shippu la Senpu
An arcade shmup fan adaptation of the anime show Kill la Kill by Studio Trigger.



Final Fantasy VIII: Sleeping Lion Heart

more like HIBERNATING Lion Heart amirite

A Different Approach to Difficulty

I mean you said:

But rather, the game allows the player to interact with it in certain ways to make it easier, or harder, for themselves. These take the form of tools, approaches, strategies, input sequences or methods, etc. which should often come with some sort of trade-off.


This is something that has been implemented in a number of games including From Software’s Dark Souls, which Extra Credits has dedicated an entire episode to, and which everyone should take a look.

The video contains a list of mechanics that cover a lot of the game's difficulty. I'm going to assume you're referring to the entire game as a shining example of how organic difficulty works. Especially if the point of design is to work the difficult adjustment within the game itself. You can't talk about how magic builds affect the entire game without talking about the entire game.

That's only because I didn't want to repeat something someone else has already said in-depth. Among my examples, there's XCOM which still has difficulty modes. Am I talking about the entire game there too?

In any case, thanks for the replies Darken.

A Different Approach to Difficulty

Referencing the entirety of Dark Souls for a difficulty solution is kind of... eh. I mean Shovel Knight suddenly reminds of Dark Souls 2's bonfire system where you could make enemies surrounding it more powerful (and respawn them) for various riskreward quirks, and that being isolated as an example is gonna have less arguments and people like me poking holes.

I don't see how I've done that to be honest. All I did was link to a video from Extra Credits where they went in depth with those specific things. In fact it was you who brought it up as though it were referenced in its entirety.

A Different Approach to Difficulty

His point is the same as mine as in that the Dark Souls "organic difficulty" only works in practice if you know a lot about the game before-hand. Again how would you know pyromancer is the easy mode? Despite being able to learn magic later on in the game (again a technique pretty cumbersome to new players, I've seen tons of LPers MAYBE experiment with it by the time they get to Darkroot Garden, things like catalyst requirements, equipping the spell, knowing the spell usesage really just comes after putting up with the melee build for long) it's a choice that greatly affects your first time experience with the game, if he had accidentally picked magic user the "organic difficulty" seems to come down to happenstance. Also really? Archer build? That also isn't a very intuitive thing to use unless you know what you're doing, at the beginning of the game you have limited ammo and enemies with shields can negate it. You're also screwed when up against bosses and aren't really learning the game. They're meant to give a slight advantage like firebombs in battles and they can abuse the AI, but there's a lot to deter players from bothering exclusively with archery unless they looked up on how to get the Drake Sword or something.

I think Dark Souls is a great game and anyone can beat the game if they put their mind to it. But it's laughable to say that Dark Souls has this amazing scale-able difficulty that can conform to players as they play the game. The game is an imbalanced mess that just taking the wrong direction at the start of the game will fool you into thinking the game is more difficult than it is. It's full of traps and common mistakes that can turn off the player from playing the game had they not looked up some tips and tricks beforehand.

I really don't want this to be yet another discussion regarding Dark Souls. It's not like I'm necessarily trying to defend the game. It only serves as an example of such approach, and it still has a lot of room for improvements. Besides, I do think it lacks a proper framework as to how to approach difficulty anyway. The game is just not flexible enough it its organic difficulty.

A Different Approach to Difficulty

They actually... kinda do. They have their previous experiences with games in a similar genre. If someone goes into an FPS with a lot of experience in the genre and looking for a challenge, it's safe to assume they know enough about the genre that they can jump straight into hard mode. If someone has never touched an FPS before, they'll likely bump down the difficulty to easy so they can get a feel for what's going on.

Yeah, they know nothing about YOUR game, and they'll have to experience your game themselves before they can settle on what difficulty is right for them, but that's going to be a problem no matter what previous experience they have in the genre.

That is assuming your game is a complete copy of some other game though (and even then it won't be the same). Else, the player is NEVER going to accurately predict exactly what "NIGHTMARE" even means with regards to their 12 year experience of playing FPS games.

The thing with difficulty modes, like I've mentioned above, is that it doesn't account for fluctuations in performance in an individual player across time and throughout a playthrough. An individual player's performance will change due to factors including mood, fatigue, and health, even if they're finishing the entire game in one sitting. Even if you allow players to change the difficulty mid-game, their perception of their skill is still going to be based on where they think they are, not where they really are. And again, that still doesn't solve the problem of the player feeling patronized by selecting a lower difficulty when they were doing just fine with this difficulty before. By using integrated difficulty tools (let's call them that), you're letting them opt for help down to the level of individual instances instead of adjustment across the board.

At the risk of sounding close-minded, I don't believe such a solution exists.

Pretend for a moment that Dark Souls just came out and that a little man named Jimmy just put it in his Xbox. No one knows a single thing about it, not even about its rumored difficulty, so Jimmy is going in as blind as can possibly be. Jimmy picks the Knight class because he likes big bulky armored dudes. Not realizing the massive effect that armor weight has on stamina and movement speed, Jimmy struggled to figure out why his dude kept getting wrecked in the tutorial level because he kept running out of stamina points. Frustrated at dying over and over again in the tutorial level, Jimmy quit the game and went to sleep. The next day, Jimmy talked to his friend and was baffled at hearing his account of how easy and fun it was.

"LOL you picked Knight, Jimmy? I went with Pyromancer. I could blast all the enemies in the tutorial level and I'm already in the Undead Burg! You shouldn't have picked Knight."

Tell me: exactly how Jimmy was supposed to know this? Where was it communicated to him that Knights would be as clunky as they were? Most importantly: how was Jimmy's immersion in Dark Souls maintained?

That last one was a trick question. Immersion was lost. Once Jimmy learned he made a bad choice, he'll either go hollow and quit the game, restart the game with a different class, or grit his teeth and struggle through with his bad choice. In all three scenarios, immersion was lost because of a choice he made using variables he had no knowledge of, and he now views the game through a more sour lens. Oh sure, he can make the game easier by finding the Ring of Life Protection, learning magic, and other strategies, but if he quits the game in frustration before finding them, then that kinda defeats their purpose, doesn't it?

This whole scenario can be avoided by one thing: Proper communication. If Jimmy wanted to have an easier time, he should go with a class with lighter equipment. Or he could strip his Knight character down and run around in nothing but a loincloth (how's THAT for immersion in a grimdark fantasy setting like Dark Souls?).

Small indie devs don't have a massive community. They don't have fans making numerous tutorial videos on what options are best for beginners. They have to rely on their own design skills to communicate to the player what their games do and how to make them easier. The line between helpful and patronizing is going to be different for each player, and so the more options a game has to make it easier for players to quickly get settled, the better. For some games, it's a difficulty selector. For others, it's a class selector. For even others, it's smashing player's heads against the floor over and over again until they find the right setup that they like. For others still, it's a combination of these options.

The common factor in all of this is that players need to understand what they're getting into. If you have to sacrifice some immersion for this, then it's better to do it up front before they get into the flow rather than running directly into a wall mid game and slinking back to a lower difficulty setting. Exactly HOW devs do this is going to vary per game.

While I like the idea of designing your game using in-game equipment, strategies, and whatever, I feel the root of the problem is poor communication from the game to the player. Designing for ludoaesthetics is merely one way to go about this. It's a neat way, and one that I definitely want to explore more, but it has its own share of drawbacks that aren't insignificant enough to replace the familiar difficulty setting. Not yet, anyway.

TL;DR: I think designing for ludoaesthetics is an option to consider ALONGSIDE difficulty selectors, not INSTEAD OF them.

I respectfully think this scenario is based on way too many assumptious premises. First of all, Jimmy's initial frustration doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean he's only going to have nothing but frustration for the rest of the game. Whatever happened to improvements? And has he never failed in any game before? How is selecting the Knight being the wrong choice for Jimmy different from choosing the wrong strategy in any other game? Had it been any other game, and instead of choosing the wrong class, Jimmy had built the wrong character, equipped the wrong items, and chosen the wrong strategy (which would take a lot more time and effort than choosing the wrong class at the beginning of the game, by the way) would he be frustrated at the game for not telling him all that? Of course not. And I don't see how the game explicitly telling Jimmy what best to do would maintain his immersion? Are we going to talk about whether tutorials would elevate immersion now? Because we all know where that discussion would eventually go. Should Jimmy have trouble with the Knight class, there are many ways to bridge the gap between a melee class to a magic class without having to restart the game. If Jimmy knew anything about video games, he would've tried the bow and gone for the archer build happily.

Secondly, Jimmy's friend's account wouldn't necessarily indicate any fun. It would indicate that his/her experience was easy, but not necessarily fun. What do they know about what fun means for the other person anyway? What if even though Jimmy believed his friend, he still couldn't forget the feeling of overwhelming satisfaction when he finally took down the Asylum Demon after so many tries, even though he thought he was really bad at using the Knight? What was it, then? Was his friend's exprience fun or was his own experience fun?

I think it would be very much a mistake to equate any feeling of frustration at all with lost immersion. But I shouldn't have to tell you that.

A Different Approach to Difficulty

I mean, not really? Like, it's a bit difficult to tell what you're proposing, beyond "Do good design, not bad design, also explicit choice of difficulty is bad design because reasons."

What I'm saying is, sometimes, I like to play hardcore, and sometimes I just want to dick around, and in both cases, I prefer to be allowed explicitly to choose what level I'm doing, rather than having to guess at things or trust the dev to have been able to predict how I play. Forcing difficulty to be part of the gameplay (somehow) is forcing the player to 1) figure out that the difficulty is part of the gameplay and not just totally static, and B) figure out how to alter the difficulty to their taste according to the whims of an unknown developer.

I don't think there's a perfect silver bullet to make difficulty levels suit every player; conversely, I also don't think that having elements separate from the gameplay are necessarily bad for Flow or enjoyment. (TBH it feels like that stuff is treated like garlic for vampires these days, rather than just one of many options. It's silly, especially when designing for an already low-fi medium like RPG Maker games.)

I did elaborate pretty explicitly in my comments above. I respectfully urge you to read them before continuing this line of discussion. Like I said, I wrote this piece originally for a different audience, so it might not be as catered to RPGs as you folks might expect here. But that's why I clarified further.

The thing is, though, they don't have to deliberately "figure out" anything as some sort of chore before playing the game, if part of the game IS about finding an approach suitable for themselves. Figuring it out IS playing the game. When you find something you think will be beneficial for you, go right ahead. Nothing's stopping you. The problem with difficulty modes, like I said, is that they do not provide any context. By integrating the process of difficulty adjustment to the gameplay experience itself, you reduce half the the confusion and gain the ability to fine tune the difficulty to your liking.

But hey, if instead you want the game to explicitly babyfeed the difficult adjustment for you right off the bat, when you have no idea what those difficulty options even speak about, then by all means walk away and find games that do so. Games with no difficulty modes are just not worth your time.

Aight but what does that have to do with "visual and auditory appeal of using the subject matter or the subject matter itself"? Like, yeah, people often use the pretty equipment over the functional equipment when that's a thing, but it doesn't work so much as an inherent duality. You'll just as often find that the best equipment also looks the best, or find that equipment doesn't vary in aesthetics, for example. It just strikes me as a false duality, is all, since the design of stuff is independent of the use of stuff.

Well, let me reiterate my point more clearly. Yes, it is not an inherent duality like you said. But aesthetics are always more or less subjective. Sure, it's often the case that better equipment looks better in terms of size, details, colors and so on. But there are players who find that those things look increasingly ridiculous: How could anybody move in that pile of metal? If my class is Assassin, why would I want my armor to be gold-plated, wouldn't that give my position away? And so on. That is why SOME people choose to forgo gameplay optimization SOMETIMES in SOME games. Because to them that's not appealing. And I've reiterated manytimes that that's only ONE of the reasons why people do so. I'm not telling anybody to design so better equipment always look increasingly worse. They can go about it anyhow they want. But you can't claim that better equipment in all games always look objectively better. That is not true.

Do you suggest labeling these things as in-game easy modes? Otherwise, I can see some players using them even when they don't need them and then complaining that the game is too easy. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but do you just tell them "then just don't use that item?" Or do you discourage them from asking by putting something in the description like "for players who struggle with combat" or something in the description?

Honestly, this is the hard part that I shouldn't (and can't really) answer. It depends a lot on what you would like your game to be, or how you want to position your game on the market. The reason games like Dark Souls work even though their easy mode is somewhat obscured behind a few layers (this criticism is always valid. I can't deny it) is partly because they have a community. Smaller games may not have (or may not think they have) that luxury.

But still you can find examples of such an approach in quite a number of small indie games. Helen's Mysterious Castle for example. That's an RM2K3 game. I hope you didn't forget about trying it :D

Edit: Also hey, I almost forgot. There's always grinding in RPGs. That IS personal difficulty adjustment. So maybe it won't be that tricky to design.

A Different Approach to Difficulty

Thanks for the replies, everybody. Your thoughts are all interesting and made me think a lot more about this. I'm glad I shared with you RPG folks.

However, I don't think there's enough here to spell a death knell for difficulty modes, especially in RPGs, unless I'm really missing something. There are players who simply want a more casual experience, and don't want to have to completely master the system or trial-and-error classes to find which ones are easiest. If making the game easier for the player costs them hours of banging their head against the game's systems to see what works when they just wanted to have a leisurely playthrough, less comfortable players will quit the game. Some of them just want an easy way to pick up the game and play, and I think a lot of what's being discussed here doesn't really help them.

Thanks for the kind words, unity. A lot of the concerns you addressed are exactly the reason for this model. But perhaps I didn't elaborate it clearly enough to easily apply to RPGs. People looking for the casual experience ARE on the Effectiveness side of the spectrum. I made an effort to put an entire section to the other end of the spectrum simply because it's more often overlooked. In no way did I mean there wasn't room for casual players. It's a spectrum for reason.

What I'm saying can be basically translated into the RPG language as something like these:
  • To support the more casual players, instead of using difficulty modes, perhaps you can try immediately giving them a leg up with the option to obtain easy-mode-exclusive items that give them some moderate advantages: A ring that reduces all incoming damage. A ticket that lets players save anywhere instead of having to reach a save point. A lantern you can buy at any town which reduce the stats of all bosses by 30%. These are all ideas for an organic easy mode that is not a menu-based option. The point is to stop thinking of them as imbalance factors.
  • To support people who seek challenge by arranging things in such a way that hints at the possibility of an unconventional yet elegant approach. Think of something like FF8 allowing players to obtain Squall's Lion Heart right from Disc 1. It's possible, just incredibly tedious and difficult.

Similarly, if a game allows me to choose difficulty, I find that a valuable element because, y'know, sometimes I don't WANT to play like a True Hardcore Gamer. Sometimes, I want to breeze through and have some fun for once in my miserable existence without having to figure out the One True Perfect Speedrun 100% Perfect way to play is.

ETA: Also I am not sure why your ELS scale is putting "game pretty" as the opposite of "game easy."

As I've mentioned throughout the article as well as in my comments above, this model is to serve exactly this purpose.

I'm also not sure why you're confused as to why "game pretty" can't be the opposite of "game easy." People deliberately forgo high level equipment all the time just because they like the looks of a lower level equipment set better. Or people ignore high level skills all the time just because the lower level skills have higher combo count, which can help them break their own combo count record, which serves absolutely no purpose besides unlocking achievements or simple bragging rights. You can find these in every Tales game ever.

Huge issue with Dark Souls and the Organic Difficulty proposition: It's really just similar to the issues of the others. Picking Pyromancer at the start of Dark Souls is really just a hidden easy mode aka a choice from the very start. Someone going into the game for the first time wants to RP as Gandalf when they pick magic, not to "organically" take it easy. To me that whole thing was just incidental, and Demon's Souls (the game before it) took more of the route of different parts are difficult for different builds. I don't think making the game simply imbalanced from the very start (most AI unable to deal with ranged hitstun attacks, the magic system being spam to win, ignoring every combat mechanic ) is the most elegant solution. Not to mention the magic system is actually cumbersome to use for any new player. There's a lot of things in Dark Souls that aren't exactly... elegant. It's just an imbalanced game lol.

Truthfully I don't see how it's not an elegant solution. I'm not saying the intended experience for Dark Souls is melee. But it's just the way it chooses to be, that those who pick melee will have a harder time in the game, and those who pick range or magic will have an easier time. You could very well make a game where those two are reversed. It is true that Dark Souls is an unbalanced game, and intentionally so. In the end, the whole point of this imbalance is so that players of different skill levels can enjoy the game in the best possible way without all the downsides of the traditional approach to difficulty.

You are most likely correct in pointing out that only a small subset of the playerbase would ever attempt speedrunning. But my point with that example is two fold:
  • Speedrunning is only ONE of the manifestations of arbitrary, self-imposed challenges with intrinsic values to players. By using speedrunning as an example I do not at all mean all games should be designed to be speedrun. That is just silly.
  • The reason why the ELS model is a spectrum is only because I wanted to emphasize the gradation of all subject matters within a game. How far and wide the spectrum can be depends greatly on how much effort you are willing to put in to stretch it. If you don't want to spend your effort on designing your game to support speedrun, that's fine. All the power to you. But there are a ton of smaller things you can do with minimal effort to stretch this spectrum.

A Different Approach to Difficulty

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Kyle. I wrote this piece originally for Gamasutra, so the concepts laid out above do tend to spread out across many genres. I do believe they apply (and have applied) very well to RPGs too. The easiest example in JRPGs I can think of off the top of my head would be the soft-lock idea where, instead of locking players out of areas that are not really "intended" for them at this point, they discourage players from venturing into those areas by putting way high level monsters in there. The most recent JRPG I've seen this being done in is Dragon Quest XI.

However, as I have implied in many different ways throughout my article, when you design your RPGs with soft-locks, that means you also have to account for that subset of players who do whatever they can to break the conventional approach. But once you've prepared for that, the line between conventional and unconventional quickly blurs out, because each approach is catered to a different subset of the audience anyway.

Perhaps I didn't elaborate my points on the ELS very well to communicate to the RPG genre. But the main idea of it is so that people DON'T ever feel patronized for taking the easy way nor compelled to do it the hard way. When applied to JRPGs, this means that games should give some leeways for people who don't have it in them, while at the same time strive to encourage people in some ways to deviate from the conventional approach or the "intended experience", instead of locking them in completely. Ideas like the area soft-locks and using Heal on Undead enemies and so on and all very clever. All of these can be done within the same difficulty mode and the same playthrough. This is nothing new as we all know, but the point of the ELS is to serve as a model to quickly outdate both the concepts of difficulty modes and DDA, and also as a sort of design philosophy.



As you may have realized, I took some time (approximately 2 years LOL) off pixel art and gamedev in general (as in not actively involved in any game projects, or any communities at all). So there's not that much to say. I don't regret taking the time off at all, since I've learned a whole bunch of new things and dare I say new perspectives. But nonetheless, I'm glad to say now I'm slowly getting back to my grooves.

Not much new to show since my last post in this thread, but here are a few amongst the VERY FEW things I've made in the past 2 years or so.

Also, I'm opening commission on Fiverr. So if you're interested in my art and would like me to draw something, feel free to hit me up!

[RM2K] Helen's Mysterious Castle

I'm just gonna bump this thread to say that this game is CRAZY GOOD in its design and every RPG designer should give it a shot to learn what a compact, elegant, well-rounded system looks like.